Healthcare workers start own firm

KALAHEO — Some people just have a knack for finding rainbows on

a rainy day. Such is the case with mother-daughter occupational

therapy team Arlene Baker and Mindy Murray of Kaua‘i. Baker and

Murray are two of 23 former Hawai‘i HealthCare Professionals (HHCP)

employees on Kaua‘i, Maui and O‘ahu who contacted the state

Department of Labor last year claiming their employer, HHCP owner

Carolyn Frutoz-de Harne, was paying them late or not at all.

KALAHEO — Some people just have a knack for finding rainbows on a rainy day.

Such is the case with mother-daughter occupational therapy team Arlene Baker and Mindy Murray of Kaua‘i. Baker and Murray are two of 23 former Hawai‘i HealthCare Professionals (HHCP) employees on Kaua‘i, Maui and O‘ahu who contacted the state Department of Labor last year claiming their employer, HHCP owner Carolyn Frutoz-de Harne, was paying them late or not at all.

HHCP closed its Kaua‘i office in March 2011, just two weeks after The Garden Island reported on Frutoz-de Harne’s practices. Its closure left a void on the island. Patients have been in need of home healthcare services, healthcare workers have been in need of patients, and there has been no intermediary service provider to bring them together.  

Recognizing this need, Baker and Murray decided to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit and start their own business. They opened Kaua‘i In-Home Therapy Services in October.

“This is a niche service in that the patient can have either out-patient, in-home physical therapy or in-clinic,” Murray said. “Never before has there been such a service on Kaua‘i.”

Although their in-clinic services are unique for an outside provider, Murray said most patients like the convenience of in-home therapy.

“By seeing them in their home, we can help them to be safer by doing a health assessment of their environment,” Murray said.

“We get cords out of their way and rugs that might slip, which is very important for elderly people living at home. We want to help them with everything they need.

“It’s important for people to know that they can call us directly and we’ll get a referral for them from their doctor and do all of the insurance billing paperwork,”  Murray said. “No doctor has ever refused our request to provide a patient with a referral.”

Islandwide, they have 31 patients who range in age from 4 years old to 87.

While they’re off to a good start, the mother-daughter duo say they still have a large learning curve to overcome. They are navigating the arduous processes of insurance billing, obtaining their service provider numbers for just about every type of medical insurance offered in Hawai‘i, learning the basic practices and principles of running a business, and all the while seeing patients outside the office.

But Murray and Baker aren’t doing it entirely alone. They have someone to help them with the accounting, plus they have four physical therapists and one speech therapist under their umbrella. Two of them are also former HHCP employees.

“We pay our employees the best (rate) in the business, which may not be the best business choice for us, but they deserve it,” Murray said. “And no matter what, we will always pay our employees.”

“We treat them as professionals,” Baker said. “At HHCP, we weren’t treated with much respect. We pay our therapists really well because we know how hard the work is.”

Murray said that since opening her own business, she has never worked so hard in her all her life.

“Mom tells me it’s going to get easier,” she said.

“We’re the underdogs, starting out with nothing and trying to create something,” Baker said.

At some point down the road, they plan to hire a medical billing specialist and more therapists. And someday soon, Murray’s own daughter, 16-year-old honors student Neolani Murray, might be joining mom and grandma, making it a three-generation family business of women, Murray said proudly.  

“We’re having fun,” Baker said, “or else we wouldn’t be doing it.

Murray said until they get all of their provider numbers in place and reimbursements start coming in, she and her mother will be struggling.

“I’m still working for free, but at least I’m working for myself,” she said with a smile.

A year ago, Murray, Baker and nine other frustrated HHCP employees contacted TGI to say HHCP was not paying them. Murray and Baker spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity because of a legal case against Frutoz-de Harne that was pending at that time. In TGI’s previous series, they are referred to as OT1 (Murray) and OT2 (Baker).

HHCP still owes Murray $6,700 and Baker $4,000, they said, but they feel they’ve reached a dead end.

“If we cannot locate (Frutoz-de Harne), we cannot serve her through a privately paid lawyer,” Murray said. “She is on O‘ahu. We just don’t know where. If anyone knows where she is, feel free to let us know.”

For others who may find their employer’s paychecks coming late or bouncing, Murray offers the following advice: “I would say stop working, if you can. … I wish I could have stopped working; however, I was morally obligated to meet the needs of my patients … I slept better knowing I was seeing them … I do not regret that.”

She said when HHCP stopped paying her, she followed the Department of Labor’s protocol, “which was a lot of paperwork; however, it led me and others nowhere. We even filed police reports for the checks that Carolyn issued on closed bank accounts.” Still, nothing happened.  

Jeffrey Oh, a labor law specialist with the Compliance Branch of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said 23 employees filed a complaint in 2011 claiming HHCP had not paid them.

“But there are actually more when all the years are added statewide,” Oh said. He was uncertain of the exact number because he was new to the department in 2011 and has yet to familiarize himself with all of the complaints filed in 2010 and earlier, he said.

It is not clear whether registered nurses were included in Oh’s estimation. At least two HHCP registered nurses on Kaua‘i contacted the Department of Labor in late 2010 because they were not getting paid. They said Oh told them he could not represent them because, as registered nurses, they are considered professionals and the department, as a policy, does not represent professionals.

Despite the large number of complaints, the Department of Labor dropped the wage claims case against Frutoz-de Harne “because the employer’s whereabouts is unknown,” states a letter from Oh to Murray dated Sept. 27.

“She got away with it when she just walked,” he said Friday.

Kaua‘i In-Home Therapy Services is located at 2-2514 Kaumuali‘i Hwy., Kalaheo. Call 652-0907 or  visit www.kauaihometherapy.com for more information.

• Vanessa Van Voorhis, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 251, or by emailing vvanvoorhis@thegardenisland.com.

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